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Habs conclude season in must-win situations

Sunday, 04.05.2009 / 10:00 PM / The Week Ahead

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

It was only seven months ago that the fanatical fans of Montreal were gearing up for what would be the biggest story of the year -- if only their beloved Canadiens would follow the script of capturing their 25th Stanley Cup during their centennial season.

Of course, no one figured the Canadiens could be fighting for their playoff lives entering the final week of the regular season. But here we are, with 10 days remaining before the start of the playoffs, and nothing has been guaranteed for the NHL's most storied franchise as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 92 points.

Still, that fighting spirit has returned for Les Habitants and must continue this week when the quest to qualify for the postseason continues. The Canadiens face Ottawa on home ice Monday before traveling to Manhattan to face the Rangers on Tuesday and then Boston on Thursday. They'll close out their regular season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Bell Centre.

"We're trying to grab as many points as we can and move up the standings," forward Chris Higgins said. "The confidence in the room is back -- that's pretty obvious to tell. I think we've got four games left here and if we continue to play the way we've been playing the last couple games, then we'll have the right mind-set for the playoffs."

It appears the line of Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev, which has combined for 31 points and 12 of Montreal's past 23 goals in the six games it has been together, has been the driving force in recent weeks. The trio has also energized the team's power-play as the Canadiens are 13-for-36 (36.1 percent) over the last six games.

"We're moving the puck better and we're moving more," said Kovalev, who has 6 goals and 11 points in the last five games. "Teams can't key on one guy because we're getting shots from the point, and if they close that off, we're getting it done down low."

"It's fun to have your destiny in your own hands," Tanguay said. "We're not looking at where we're at in the standings, we're just looking at winning games. Points are crucial."

The Canadiens are now 6-3-3 under coach Bob Gainey and 5-0-1 over their past six games -- taking 11 of a possible 12 points in the process. The team was 35-24-7 when Gainey, also the club's general manager, fired Guy Carbonneau and stepped behind the bench.

Predators lurking
-- A victory over the Blues on Saturday night enabled the Nashville Predators to match St. Louis with 86 points in the Western Conference playoff chase. The Blue Jackets are sixth, one point ahead of Anaheim and three in front of Nashville and St. Louis -- got it?

Obviously, the Predators have a big week in store when they play host to the Blackhawks in their final home game of the regular season on Tuesday before embarking on a two-game road trip to conclude the season in Detroit on Thursday and Minnesota on Friday.

The return of Jason Arnott, who had missed the last 11 games because of a concussion suffered on March 10, paid huge dividends as he posted two goals and one assist in the victory over St. Louis on Saturday. Arnott leads the Predators with 29 goals this season.

"This is really going to come down to the wire," said Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. "It is such an exciting time, but it is going to take everything we have to finish this regular season strong. This is why we play hockey, this is where everything is at stake and this is where everything counts. This is the best time in my life."

Double shot - With just one week remaining in the regular season, there are two intriguing home-and-home sets with a lot at stake. Over in the Eastern Conference, it's the Flyers and Rangers and, in the West, it's the Flames and the Oilers.

Here's a closer look:

Rangers vs. Flyers (Thursday in New York; Sunday in Philadelphia) -- The final two games of the regular-season series will go a long way into determining playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference, not to mention a potential playoff berth on the line for the Rangers. The Blueshirts have posted a 103-101-37-6 mark all-time against the Flyers with the clubs splitting the season series through four games this season. The Rangers are 9-3-2 in their last 14 meetings against the Flyers, including four shutouts over that stretch. For the Rangers, Scott Gomez has registered 43 points (11 goals) in 52 career game against the Flyers while captain Chris Drury has amassed 22 points (7 goals) in 32 contests. For the Flyers, rookie Claude Giroux leads the club with 5 points (4 assists) in three games this season and Simon Gagne has accrued 39 points (21 goals) in 44 career games.

The Flyers, who have won just one of their previous four games, were reminded of that by GM Paul Holmgren earlier in the week.

"Until you see that little letter next to your name in the standings (for clinching a playoff spot) in the papers, there's no sense feeling comfortable, because the League is too tight," said Holmgren.  "You can't afford to be playing bad for two weeks in this League. We have six games left, and we need to win some games to guarantee a spot for the playoffs. We need to play better."

"We're chasing the game right now because we're not making these little plays," Flyers captain Mike Richards said. "Once we start executing better and putting pucks on the tape, start focusing on the smaller parts of the game rather than the big picture, we should be fine."

The Flyers are fourth in the Eastern Conference with 95 points and the Rangers are fighting for their playoff lives as the eighth seed with 89 points.

Flames vs. Oilers (Friday in Edmonton; Saturday in Calgary) -- The Flames and Oilers have won two games apiece heading into the weekend showdown. The clubs actually tied the 2007-08 season series as well at 4-4-0. Despite the fact the Flames clinched a playoff spot on April 2 with a 2-1 victory over the Dallas Stars, the jubilation was subdued just for the simple fact Calgary is 3-5-0 its last 8 games.

"We have bigger goals ahead of us," said Flames coach Mike Keenan. "With four games remaining, it's still within our grasp -- we'll continue to work at it -- the division title, and we'll see how it all unfolds."
"With four games remaining, it's still within our grasp -- we'll continue to work at it -- the division title, and we'll see how it all unfolds." -- Flames coach Mike Keenan
The Flames are third in the Western Conference with 94 points and the Oilers are 11th with 83 -- three behind the eighth seed in Nashville.

NHL on NBC
-- The Chicago Blackhawks play the second game of a home-and-home set with the Detroit Red Wings in Sunday's NHL on NBC Game of the Week (12:30 E.T.). The contest is crucial for the Hawks in their quest to shore up home ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The club is currently fourth in the Western Conference with 95 points -- one ahead of Calgary.

The back-to-back matchups provide the Blackhawks with a chance to take at least one game in the season series as the Wings have won all four previous meetings, including a 6-4 victory in the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day.

 
 

For the Blackhawks, Patrick Kane leads the way with 8 points (3 goals) in 9 previous meetings against the Wings.

Sunday marks the final day of the regular season. Just nine of the 16 playoff berths have been claimed. The four clubs ranked fourth through seventh in the Eastern Conference are separated by three points and the four teams rated sixth through ninth in the Western Conference are separated by three.

Air time
-- The NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman and co-host Bill Clement will again air Thursday from 4-5 p.m. ET on NHL Home Ice (XM Channel 204 and Sirius Channel 208).

NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman provides the latest news and events from the highest levels of the NHL. The show encourages fans to submit questions via phone and email. To submit questions to NHL Hour call 1-877-645-6696 or email nhlhour@nhl.com. The archived shows of The NHL Hour, a production of NHL Radio, are available for download on NHL.com via a podcast. NHL Hour is a production of NHL Radio.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.


Quote of the Day

They said, 'You're going to love the city. It's smaller than Philadelphia, but you're going to love it. You're going to love the fans. Just watching the playoffs last year, the fans seemed louder there than they did anywhere. I'm really excited about that.

— Forward Scott Hartnell on his upcoming season with the Columbus Blue Jackets